Churches develop programs to attract younger members

Friday, November 6, 2020
Pastor Denise Parrello at First Presbyterian Church.

Motivating younger churchgoers to attend services once they assert their independence can prove to be a challenge for church leaders, but studies show they often return when they become older.

Pastor Karen Berg is pastor of two United Methodist Churches, one in Alta and the other in Peterson. The Peterson church comprises a wide age range, while in Alta, not so. “My current congregation is an elderly congregation,” she said of the Alta church.

“There’s a specific age group between 30-35 that tends to be missing in a lot of churches. A lot of what we’re seeing is people in their 30’s not attending.” Some give the reason that Sunday is the only day they have to sleep in, Berg said.

Some plans she had for gaining new members changed when the pandemic came along. Before that time, “We were gearing up to do a number of projects in 2020, but things came to a halt. The focus now is how to keep our people safe.”

Starting a young parents’ group is one plan. “It was in my personal planning stage,” she said. “The order to close the churches came before I had an opportunity to meet with the church board for approval. I already have an altered Plan B ready to propose once we are able to fully open our doors.”

Until the pandemic, the leadership weekends she conducted for adults and teens were always popular. “Adult weekends can be either Walk to Emmaus or Via de Cristo. Teen weekends are called Chrysalis or TEC (Teens Encounter Christ). In the past 20 years, most of my volunteering and mentoring has been with Walk to Emmaus and Chrysalis.”

Berg said the leadership weekends are an ideal way to motivate teen involvement in church. “When teens get to know Christ, they are like a ball on fire.”

Rev. Denise Parrello, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and First Presbyterian Church in Alta said, “We have a growing number of young people who are getting involved in the mission of this congregation. We are noticing that their interest mainly surrounds finding a safe place to raise and nurture their children.”

“We have a Sunday school program that is based on the educational value of play and we use structured play to teach biblical values and stories. We value the presence of children in worship services and have recently begun a mentor program to pair our older members with our younger members. This lets the children know that they are an important part of our congregation. It also increases their involvement by widening their circle of friends.”

“We do have some faithful, seasoned members of our congregation. They add the wisdom of experience to everything we do,” she said.

Parrello encourages everyone in the congregation to invite friends and family to become involved. “Nothing encourages ministry like friendship and we base all we do on how much we love our community because God loves us so intensely.”

For current events programming, “We are using technology for our Bible and book studies, which allows us to be more inclusive and more flexible. We don’t mind if people come in their pajamas, or just listen in while taking care of their children. This additional access brings all kinds of people in.”

At Alta’s Summit Evangelical Free Church, Senior Pastor Doug Corlew said that before the pandemic, attendance and participation was pretty solid and balanced between all age groups.

To encourage younger people to attend, they incorporate Biblical teaching that is straightforward and applicable to life, worship music that is contemporary and diverse – with traditional and cultural elements, small groups to discuss Bible and develop relationships, and a robust children’s ministry, Corlew said.

Summit has not had to evolve and change in order to bring younger people to church. “Not much is different over the years, although we are flexible in our methods. Methods change, but the message the same.”

With regard to technology, “We use technology but don’t depend on it.” Corlew believes that technology is not necessarily bringing people in. “They are brought in through relationships, and authentic ministry models.”

Christianity Today published results of a survey conducted in 2017 about the top reasons young people drop out of church, citing that 66 percent of Americans between 23 and 30 years old said they stopped attending church on a regular basis for at least a year after turning 18.

The survey, with other studies showing similar results, found that most young churchgoers stop attending when they move to college, move away from home or start their first jobs. It has to do with the transition from one’s family home to a new independence. The second most common reason for non-attendance is that church members seemed judgemental or hypocritical.

However, the survey found that historically about two-thirds of those who stopped attending return to services once they get older.

(Reference: Christianity Today, “The Top Reasons Young People Drop Out of Church,” Jan. 2019.)